Breaking the cycle of historic conflict

By Bob Bickford

Counselors will tell you that couples in crisis often have the same conflicts and arguments over and over. They may experience a cooling off period and even a cessation of the immediate conflict but, given time, the unresolved issues work their way back up to the surface and the same familiar conflict erupts again, causing frustration, distress and pain.

Churches can be just like those couples, trapped on a sometimes submerged but never ending merry-go-round of conflict.

Given a regular succession of short tenured pastors who may scratch the surface of the issues perpetuating the conflict, and a church leadership group and body that lack the courage to address the real issues that are creating conflict–a church may find itself being nice for a while, then fighting for a while. Never really able to fully resolve the underlying issues that keep it from the mission of Jesus.
We know clearly that God’s design for a church is that they be unified: 1 Corinthians 1:10

Unity takes work, and that work is not always easy. As a Replanter here are some actions you can take in leading your church toward unity by addressing and breaking the cycle of historic conflict.

Uncover the Roots of Historical Conflict: Problems of disunity probably did not start yesterday. If the church has been long in decline, a search of its history will likely uncover hidden or obvious conflict. One rainy Saturday I was working at the church office and found the Deacon’s Meeting Notes from the founding of our church. This notebook detailed 40 years of meetings and revealed that during one season a deacon led an effort to fire the pastor. This led to numerous secret meetings, conflict among Sunday School classes, and people leaving the church hurt and disillusioned and angry. This conflict was the historical point when the Church began to experience the beginning of its 40 year plus decline.

Understand That Conflicts Become Embedded: Unresolved conflicts become part of the fabric a Church’s culture, character or DNA. The body learns not to trust those in leadership roles. The Pastor, even though new to the church, is viewed negatively or with suspicion, some families worship together but really don’t get along. Each of these can become an unhealthy undercurrent in the church’s culture. These tensions are often evident and felt but not often named or addressed.

Un-layering Conflict Can Lead to Resolution: Perhaps you have experienced this personally; the conflict we are having–is not really the conflict we’re having. Repressed fears, hurts and concerns find their way to the surface and often are expressed in ways that create conflict over a secondary issue. The change in music isn’t the real conflict–the driving issue is the fear of aging or loss of something familiar. The new format of the bulletin is more about the sense of fear in not knowing how to get information that was once accessible. Replanter, remember to ask your members to explain their concerns personally, express their fears and frustrations specifically.

Use Historic Conflict as a Teaching Opportunity: Most people avoid conflict altogether. Part of being a good Shepherd to your people is helping them when they are afraid or prone to hide or avoid learning and experiencing God’s grace, healing and restoration. The gospel is the greatest story of conflict resolved. As you preach the gospel it is important to show how God’s redemption of us frees us to admit our sin, forgive one another and live in restored relationships. No conflict is so big that it is beyond the power of God’s grace displayed in the Gospel.

Uplift a New Way of Relating: It’s not just enough to stop conflict or bad behavior, it is important to help your people discover new ways of relating that will lead to health rather than conflict. In the early days of our replant we were seeking to stop gossip and slander and build a positive culture. We began to share this phrase: “We are going to talk to each other, not about each other.” Slowly, over several months our people began to respond accordingly, and when someone wanted to “talk about” someone or something they were greeted with this phrase and encouraged to go to the person and speak with them directly.

Replanter, don’t run from conflict, break it’s hold, use it as a God given opportunity to display the gospel in action for the good of your people and the glory of God.

Published February 2, 2017

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick